Herb Ruffin, African American Studies Department Chair and associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was interviewed for the WURD-FM (Philadelphia) story about the “100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre.” Ruffin, who is an expert on Black settlements in…
Chancellor Q&A: Livingstock
Late into the night of Saturday, May 1, 1999, and the early hours of the next morning, a student-organized block party on Livingston Avenue, in the neighborhood directly east of Syracuse University?s north campus, flamed (literally) out of control. Couches, tree limbs and whatever else was at hand fueled a half dozen bonfires erected in the middle of the street, and police and firemen were pelted by rocks and glass bottles launched by some of the estimated 1,000 revelers.
The result: more than three dozen arrests, including 14 SU and 7 SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) students, and a $22,000 bill for cleanup and damages, including $728 for damage to a fire truck.
As the University approached the two-year anniversary of “Livingstock,” Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw sat down with Syracuse Record Executive Editor Kevin Morrow for a question-and-answer session on the subject.
What did the University learn from this experience?
First of all, we learned that the permit never should have been given, even though the Livingston Avenue block party was a “tradition” that was noisy but never before had gotten out of control. No one asked us if it was a good idea for there to be a party a few days before exams start, in warm weather.
It?s hard to say what the city learned because I think this is an occasion where the city officials were trying very hard to be accommodating to serious and well-intentioned students who had put on the program, students who fully expected that the rules the police had set up in advance would be adhered to?that at a certain time the music would stop and at a certain time the crowd would disperse, and it would all proceed in an orderly fashion. And I think the students who organized this?and I talked to a lot of them, including one who was in tears about it?it just got away from them.
The big problem with the party was the density of people in the area and what that begins to create, and then the inability to control who comes in from the outside.
So I think there is a lot to be learned. It?s different to have a block party when you have a family and 30 neighbors than when you have a block party where you have 10 or 12 people living in a building multiplied by a few dozen buildings, and you have it in an area that is open to a whole lot of additional people.
I would say another thing that we learned is summed up in an old axiom, that you welcome praise for good things about which you have no control and you get blamed for the bad about which you have no control. The University really had no responsibility in setting up the party, and I don?t think we even knew about it until very late in the preceding day. We had no responsibility for some of the local taverns that were selling discounted alcohol very early in the morning. And we had no responsibility for people from the outside. There were people from all over, and there were a lot who had no affiliation with the University.
We have tried to provide alternatives to a Livingstock kind of gathering. That?s why the University works with University Union (UU) to assist them in sponsoring Block Party, with usually one or more major music acts that are popular with students and other activities. In 1999, the UU event attracted more than 13,000 people without incident. Block Party was started in 1993 when the almost-equivalent of Livingstock was taking place at Walnut Park, which was a very serious safety problem because the place was literally body to body, and there was a high incidence of people who were drinking alcohol excessively and having to go to the hospital. There was potential for major kinds of problems. And so we asked the city to not give a permit for that park and basically moved the activity to a place where we could control it, a place where we could limit outside people coming in and where we could control the abuse of alcohol. We have tried to provide a safe alternative. If the criticism is that the alternative is too safe, then I accept that criticism. But we really don?t have an obligation to create activities or to look the other way at activities that put people in harm?s way.
Livingstock was a disaster that could have been 10 times worse. I was there. I saw the fires. And that happened to be a very dry spring. It wouldn?t have taken much for many of those houses to burn down. There would have been people killed. So to see it as sort of a light frolic with no consequence is just wrong. As it turns out, the consequence was relatively minor?some damage?but the bonfires were very close to those houses.
Those were some of the things we learned. And we learned in the process, of course, that Livingstock did appreciable damage to our relationship with our neighbors. Before Livingstock, we did too little to deal with neighborhood complaints. The Livingston Avenue situation basically became the trigger for us to implement a major expansion of our neighborhood outreach efforts in the form of a University-Community Partnership. And our initiatives have been very good, with Sylvia Martinez-Daloia (SU?s director of community relations) and Laura Madelone (judicial affairs counselor) and many other staff working with students to make sure they understand the rights and responsibilities of living off campus and with the city and neighborhood groups to launch the Neighborhood Patrol Initiative, which I know has cut down on noise violations, crime and complaints.
Frankly, some of the comments from students who participated in Livingstock concerned me greatly because the attitude was basically, “If the people who live here don?t like to have students who are doing these kinds of things, they should move out.” I came to think that we were doing our students a serious disservice, that we were basically allowing them to believe that you can trash a neighborhood without consequence. And so, our most aggressive actions with the neighborhood have been well-received by the neighbors and not well-received by some students who may have received appearance tickets for loud parties and other things. But we have a responsibility to those neighbors and to our local community, and also a responsibility?since we are here to educate?to educate our students that there is a consequence when you trash your neighbor?s yard, when you allow a party to have hundreds of people and are not concerned about if they are going to use the bathroom versus the next-door neighbor?s yard.
Is the Neighborhood Patrol Initiative doing what you had hoped it would? The University has gotten flak from some students who say it?s only purpose is to crimp their style, breaking up parties in the neighborhood, making them turn down loud stereos. And while the police are concentrating on this, real crimes are occurring in the neighborhood unabated.
Since the NPI was implemented, crime in the neighborhood has actually decreased, although student awareness of crime has increased. The fact that there is a designated police presence in the neighborhood is because of the Neighborhood Patrol Initiative; if anything, this means that more serious crimes are more apt to be detected. But let?s dissect what was said here?”crimp their style.” Part of becoming an adult is learning how to live with everybody, and if you have loud parties and your neighbor has children that are very young and can?t sleep, or are very frightened by the noise, your answer should be: “Well, how about we work something out where we can live together peacefully.” That?s what you do when you?re a neighbor. But what you don?t do as a neighbor is say “your crimping my style,” because the implication is that somehow my rights are superior to yours. And that concerns me. And, if anything, it makes me more happy that we have the Neighborhood Patrol Initiative. We?re not out to keep the students from having fun. And we?re not naive enough to believe that they won?t have fun in ways that we don?t always approve of, and we?re not out to stop every behavior that they might enjoy. It?s a question, though, of other people?s rights. And it?s a question of your responsibility as a citizen. And if we don?t teach that, what kind of job are we doing for our students? We?re teaching them somehow that they are better than other people. I don?t like that thought.
In September 1999, about four months after the incident on Livingston Avenue, you and Syracuse Mayor Roy Bernardi announced the University-Community Partnership. What is it? Is it working?
I think it?s working in the sense that lines of communication, which are always very good between myself and Mayor Bernardi, were opened even more. It also brought heads of city departments and heads of neighborhood associations together with SU, ESF and Le Moyne College. And I think it?s good because it drew attention to the neighborhood. Relatively speaking, that particular neighborhood is a very desirable place for people to live. That being the case, sometimes the city officials are less interested in putting their energies there than they are where they have major problems. I think the mayor?s willingness to participate in a partnership is much more than a public relations gesture. What it means is that this area is important, and our activities together should make this an even betterarea to live in. To me, I think it was very substantive, and I hope the next mayor is as receptive.
The partnership was three-pronged at the outset?the city government, the schools and the neighborhood groups. The major group that was left out at the time was the landlords. If you look at the demographics, a lot of the houses in the East Neighborhood are occupied by private homeowners. But a good number are also owned by people who rent to students. So to ignore the landlords? voice in the conversations was a mistake. They have a big stake in the neighborhood, and we need to listen to their particular perspectives. So this year landlords have become part of the partnership, and as a result it has become an even better forum for discussing and resolving issues. Also this year student representatives were added.
Some thought the University acted rashly in placing the students who were allegedly involved in the Livingston Avenue block party on interim suspension, especially since this happened during finals period. How would you assess the University?s response to this particular situation.
First of all, I think you have to understand the context. You had a dangerous situation that could have turned into a disaster. You also had documented evidence of arrests. What you didn?t know is, will these arrests hold? And in a situation like that, the first thing you have to ask yourself is, “Could this have gotten out of hand, and could people have been killed?” The answer is yes.
Were the people who were arrested most responsible? Probably not. Who knows who was most responsible? But they were in fact arrested. It was this group that was placed on interim suspension. Then each of those people who were on interim suspension were allowed to come forward with their viewpoint, and the city police were allowed to come forward with their evidence. Most of that went through our judicial process. Some things the city dealt with because they thought the things were serious enough.
As it turned out, in the view of our University Judicial System, there wasn?t sufficient evidence for these students to remain on suspension. It doesn?t mean that they didn?t do it; it doesn?t mean that they did. There just wasn?t sufficient evidence to make a clear determination. Further, the University was temporarily enjoined from holding a hearing concerning one of the students. In light of these circumstances, the interim suspensions were lifted for all the students. I think that was the only way to proceed. What we couldn?t say is, “Well, the whole thing doesn?t mean anything, and the people who got arrested didn?t do anything.” We can only deal with what was there. And keep in mind, because of what the police were going through at the time they couldn?t make strong identifications. They were thrust into a situation that was out of control, and it was not an easy time for them.
In retrospect, all you can do is go with the arrest record and deal with it fairly. Now if we had said, “Well, they were arrested, and we?re just going to kick them out of school for good,” I think we would have overstepped our bounds. But the fact is, they were arrested, they were put through the disciplinary process, and for the most part, for the majority of them, there was insufficient evidence, so the suspension was dropped. I think that procedure is what you have to do. If we don?t do it, we don?t accept responsibility for the safety of others. And even though the problem is off campus, it is our concern.
The Syracuse University in the Community program (http://students.syr.edu/offcampusliving)?what is it, and what effect do you think it is having?
I think it is a sincere effort on our part to help students understand their responsibilities and to be of help to the community. I would like to see us do more along these lines. I would like for us to have an office of off-campus student services. It?s something that the Division of Student Affairs has proposed. The reason I would like to see it is that there are landlord-student problems that probably could be averted if we played a more educational role up front. We could tell students about some of the pitfalls. And we aren?t really geared up to do that now. We can also tell them early about the upside and downside of living off campus. The upside is personal freedom. The downside is that the things that you take for granted here, if you live on campus, you are not necessarily going to have off campus. And safety is a big piece of that.
Do you foresee having such an off-campus student services office in place anytime in the near future?
It?s being seriously studied.
In a letter grade, “A” to “F,” how would you grade the University?s relationship with its neighbors right after Livingstock? And how would you grade that relationship now?
I would grade it a “C-” after Livingstock and a “B” now.
What do you see as the next step in improving town-gown relations?
The next step comes from more open communications and determining what the next step should be. For example, our guaranteed mortgage program has been very successful. Sixty-six University employees have bought homes in the East Neighborhood. This came out of dialog and out of a better understanding of what was happening in the neighborhood. And other good things are going to result from positive dialog. We have been very active with Congressman Jim Walsh?s HUD efforts, which provide federal money for the rehab of residential buildings. And we have expanded the guaranteed mortgage program to other parts of the city that would include buildings that are part of the HUD enterprise.
The Syracuse Area College Community Coalition to Prevent Alcohol Abuse is a collaborative effort to take a proactive approach to substance abuse prevention. We are trying to limit underage student access to alcohol, prevent intoxication, and reduce risks associated with excessive drinking by working with community leaders, government officials, local prevention experts, tavern owners and other stakeholders.
These aren?t things that were designed to improve town-gown relations. They are designed to improve our city; any benefit to the University?s relationship with the city is a bonus. Frankly, I?m less concerned with activities that are “designed to improve town/gown relationships” and more interested in things that improve our city.
There is always going to be a tension, and there is in every university area?whether it?s Boston College, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, or some other urban institution. It doesn?t matter where you go, there is always going to be this tension.
What?s important is working through things and finding what you have in common that you want to work on. And it?s clear that we do have common topics with our neighbors, and with the city. One, of which I am very proud, is the thousands of students and faculty and staff who participate in community and public service. This is one of those things that is not a public relations gesture, it?s a substantive effort.